Thou Dost Protest: Samantha Crain’s “Under Branch & Thorn & Tree”
Fellow Oklahoma-born singer songwriter Woody Guthrie wasn’t very good at keeping his mouth shut either. Arguably the very first of the American singer songwriters, Guthrie set the example for artists in his discipline to speak up for others through music and give voice to those who could not speak to the masses themselves. And not through brash, politically-strident, one-sided diatribes, but by telling the stories of the people he encountered during his distinctly American experience, and letting the lessons of these American experiences impart themselves.
Just 40 miles west of where Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma is the town of Shawnee, where Ramseur Records-signed singer songwriter Samantha Crain was born and raised. And like Woody did many years before, she has decided to champion the causes of the common man through the music of her fourth LP.
When I first heard Under Branch & Thorn & Tree was going to be a self-described “protest album,” I unmistakeably cringed. Mixing politics and music is considered a faux pas to many, and often times results in a melee between fans based on predetermined political ideologies as opposed to any measurable social change. But Samantha’s not railing against Monsanto and asking Tom Morello to bless this effort. Like Woody, perspective is what Crain chooses to help get her point across. And by taking this approach, her message will find many more open hearts.
But don’t think Samantha isn’t willing to mix it up if she believes something is unjust. As one of the few full-blooded American Indian artists you can find in the Americana realm, she decided to take a stand in a very public manner in 2014 when the daughter of one of Oklahoma’s most privileged individuals decided to symbolically desecrate important ceremonial distinctions of Native Americans as part of performance art.
Christina Fallin is the daughter of sitting Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin. She is also the front person of an Oklahoma-based band called Pink Pony. Christina first stirred controversy in the Native American community by posing in a native ceremonial headdress included with the caption “Appropriate Culturation,” a play on words of “cultural appropriation.”
Christina Fallin then flaunted that she would perform in full American Indian regalia at a music festival in Norman, Oklahoma in April of 2014. Samantha Crain gathered a few of her friends together, made up some signs, and silently and respectfully protested the performance. Fallin ended up not wearing a headdress, but did dance around in a Native drapery that said “sheep” on the back—a name Pink Pony supporters had pursued critics of their “appropriation” with previously. Apparently Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips was also laughing at the protest.
Eventually both the Norman Music Festival, and the Governor’s Office distanced from Pink Pony’s performance, and called it inappropriate. Samantha and her supporters had gotten their point across. And possibly, Samantha Crain earned a life lesson about the power of speaking up against perceived injustice.
But despite all the precursors, this new Samantha Crain album Under Branch & Thorn & Tree does not feel preachy or polarizing, or even like a protest album, at least to this particular listener. It feels like a Samantha Crain album. Delightfully fey, unexpected in stretches, complex at times without stretching into erudite territory, Samantha Crain’s style has always straddled lines between progressive folk, indie rock, and county, and can only be aptly described as “Samantha Crain Music.” And she’s always had a penchant for speaking about what she observes in the world around her.
Samantha does meet social causes head on in songs such as the opening track “Killer,” or in tracks about the widening divide between have’s and have not’s like “Outside The Pale” and “Big Rock,” but at no point did my antennae get piqued that I was listening to a political album. One of the things that is so maddening about the current political climate is how universal the sentiments are about certain issues, yet no resolvable action can be agreed upon because of the poison in the discourse. We can all find consensus around the fact that concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the few is a poor idea, yet there seems to be no pragmatic solution to be agreed upon. Music is not only one of the ways to illustrate this, it is one of the salves many turn to in a polarized, and often times unjust world.
But again, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree doesn’t feel political. In fact at times Samantha strikes a chord that is curiously plaintive for her usually poetic, and sometimes interwoven themes that take some unwrapping and contemplation to fully appreciate. In songs like “When You Come Back” and “If I Had a Dollar,” she sings pretty straightforward love songs about the pining heart in fairly clichÃ© tones. But maybe this is her way of representing the universal struggles of the downtrodden, and how whether it’s affairs of the heart or financial woes, we all hurt, and in achingly similar ways.
Samantha Crain’s gift has always been the ability to marry succulent and infectious melodies in a strikingly appropriate manner to the sentiment she is looking to convey. Her melodies can be these sugar-filled grooves, or the haunting night creatures, but either way they inspire the brain to ask for repeated moments with her music, and can awaken certain moods dormant inside listeners for many moon cycles, if they had ever been awakened before.
Aiding and abetting this awakening is Crain’s producer John Vanderslice, and the approach to this album to go directly to 2-inch tape and leave computers out of the picture, yet this recording isn’t burdened by hiss or that fuzzy “vintage” feel. It’s warm without the negative side effects some records with a similar approach are plagued by. And some of the moody, spacial moments are not made possible by synth, but by tape playback and other effects to keep the organic feel cohesive throughout the record. This is the magic that makes the melodies of songs like “Killer” and “Kathleen” stick to your bones.
Samantha Crain still remains an acquired taste however. The magic of “You or Mystery” will fly right over many people’s heads, and the rambling story of “Elk City” may be a little to much to remain attentive to. But the way Samantha constructs her choruses, like in the song “Outside The Pale,” or the strings in “Moving Day,” are elements that are pretty hard to resist. A lot of fiddle and strings, and Jesse Aycock’s lap steel, bless Under Branch & Thorn & Tree throughout, and though it’s always been a stretch to call Samantha Crain country, “Big Rock” is a fun little country song, maybe the most enjoyable track of the lot, yet below the surface is a message told through perspective at the central theme of the work.
Like “Big Rock” alludes to, because of the principles Samantha Crain has adhered to in her career, and because of the way the current world is ordered, people who are unwilling to bend tend to become isolated, have to learn how to be resourceful and get by with less. But what they find is that within those limitations is a sense of fulfillment that alludes others with earthly goals and untold resources.
1 3/4 of 2 Gus Up.
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Purchase Under Branch & Thorn & Tree from Samantha Crain
July 26, 2015 @ 5:32 pm
I understand that Samantha was protesting Pink Pony, but I’m confused about what exactly Pink Pony was doing or endorsing, that made Samantha want to protest. Was it just that they were dressing like Indians, or were they openly making fun of Indians?
Please explain it a little more.
July 26, 2015 @ 6:03 pm
Cool website, Clint. Do you ever read vdare or takimag?
July 26, 2015 @ 6:47 pm
I sometimes read them just for laughs, Lil Dale. Surprise, eh?
Somehow, I don’t think that Trigger or most of the SCM community would be very happy if you start introducing Vdare and Takimag talking points to the threads here…
July 26, 2015 @ 7:08 pm
Are they comedy, Eric? Or do you laugh because it’s stuff you disagree with?
July 26, 2015 @ 7:50 pm
In general, I tend to laugh at people who are so obsessed with race/ethnicity that it informs their entire worldview.
July 26, 2015 @ 7:52 pm
Oh, ok. I’ve never heard of it.
July 26, 2015 @ 7:06 pm
I haven’t heard of those Lil Dale. Are they good?
As for my website, I had no idea I could have my own website for free, but it’s a good way to clear the mind.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to write much, so it looks like the whole website is devoted to homosexuality.
What did you think about my list of the 10 greatest Country singers of all time?
July 26, 2015 @ 8:21 pm
I would have ranked Keith Whitley #1, but can’t argue with the rest.
July 26, 2015 @ 6:54 pm
I can’t speak for Pink Pony, but when they said “Appropriate Culturation,” I believe Christina Fallin was showing her hand that she knew she was doing something that would offend people, and did it anyway to be offensive. I think this would be significantly different than someone doing it and just think they’re playing dress up and maybe it didn’t occur to them some might have a problem with it. She was throwing it in people’s faces, and that is why I think they took issue with it.
Also, I believe we have fixed the emails for comment responses.
July 26, 2015 @ 7:11 pm
Are they anti-Indian? I don’t understand the point. Unless they were trying to celebrate Indian culture, and it came off wrong.
July 26, 2015 @ 8:33 pm
This article might give you an idea…http://www.thepeoplespaths.net/articles/formlife.htm
These are not just fun clothes… they have religious and cultural meaning.
July 26, 2015 @ 8:42 pm
Thanks EmFrank. It makes perfect sense now, and I’m not a bit surprised.
If they hate themselves that much, why don’t they just go jump off a bridge?
July 26, 2015 @ 8:55 pm
Choosing to change one’s culture does not imply “self-hate”. All culture ultimately comes down to the individual level. I don’t agree with Ayn Rand on much, but I love this quote from her:
“The smallest minority on Earth is the individual.”
July 26, 2015 @ 9:02 pm
But they do hate themselves. You know they do, and I can’t believe you’d try to argue with that. They’re racist, self-hating lunatics. And they’re so ignorant, they don’t even know how foolish they look to real Indians.
July 26, 2015 @ 9:09 pm
It’s impossible to gauge someone’s motive for making a cultural or lifestyle change. People convert to different religions all the time, for a variety of personal reasons. People’s musical tastes change all the time, too. And on and on.
Perhaps these women just like Native American culture and dresses.
July 26, 2015 @ 10:30 pm
I think the point they are trying to make is that they should be able to appropriate anyone’s culture they wish, and then throw it back into the face of anyone who is offended. Part of what the protesters had a problem with, and what was condemned is the girl started dancing around Indian style with a cape that said “sheep.” There seems to be a lot of evidence that she went out of her way to be offensive.
July 27, 2015 @ 7:32 am
Yes, indeed. And I do remember how that Flaming Lips dude had the governor’s daughter’s back. How rock and roll is that?
July 26, 2015 @ 5:47 pm
Without delving into the politics for now, I will just mention that the melody and the vocals simply come up short in the two songs posted above. The sonic style resembles lifeless “indie” music much more than country.
July 27, 2015 @ 7:36 am
Can’t speak to the melody of the two songs in question, but I looked up the lyrics. Found a website with lyrics to the whole record. I’m underwhelmed, frankly. I’m as big a fan of obtuse imagery as the next guy (hey, Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” is great tune) but I’m just not picking up what she’s putting down. She also needs an editor.
Then again, she’s signed to a record label and I’m not, so what do I know?